No Armageddon, this

The meteor "shower" was but a mild drizzle, and it took place 16 hours too early

 
Published: Tuesday 15 December 1998

Flop show. the meteor storm wa THE complexities of the solar system foxed our scientists yet again. Indeed, the Leonid meteor storm did take place, but almost 16 hours earlier than predicted. And it didn't strike at the rate of 10,000 meteors per hour. The spectacular display of God's own fireworks" that was predicted was nothing but a mild drizzle of meteors.

The Leonids are so-called because they appear to come from the constellation of Leo. They can be seen every year, but are at their most intense just after Temple-Tuttle comet has visited the inner solar system. This year the comet had been particularly close. Because of the position of the Earth, the Leonids could be best viewed from the Far East. But many Asians who ventured out to watch the celestial fireworks ended up cold, frustrated and cheated.

On the Great Wall of China, on top of skyscrapers in Tokyo, on the beaches of Thailand, on the steppes of outer Mongolia, and at the Mount Stromlo Observatory in the Australian capital Canberra, people sat to watch the "bright green tails and the bright red heads". But they did not like what they saw.

A team of Canadian and American scientists monitoring the event in Mongolia admitted the storm had arrived early and the best sightings were probably late on Monday, November 16, and early on Tuesday. "We didn't expect that. It's very unusual," said Simon Worden, of the US Air Force (USAF), while talking to the press. Steve Butow, captain Of the USAF said, "Most of the stuff that made the trails in the sky were probably no larger than the size of a small marble at the maximum. So no Armageddon tonight."

Forecasting meteor showers is difficult- The time when a meteor shower will peak, and the maximum rate at which meteors will appear, cannot be predicted with great certainty, say scientists. Looking back in history, the Leonids have frequently produced spectacular displays. But sometimes they do not deliver as in the case in 1899 when tens of thousands of expectant watchers were disappointed.

But while the lack of meteors was bad news for thrill seekers, it was good news for global telecommunications. None of the world's 600 satellites were seriously damaged. Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Research (NASA), USA, said the storm gave them a rare chance to study the composition of the comet and possibly learn more about the origins of life on Earth, Astrobiologist Gregg Schmidt said, "We have a very unique opportunity here to get some information about the way life may have arisen." It is thought the elements necessary for life on Earth may have been brought here by comets or meteorites.

Next year, the Earth will again pass through the trail of Leonid meteors shed by the Temple-Tuttle comet. Perhaps that will make up for this year's damp squib. Thereafter, it will be a good 33 years before the Leonids come close to the planet again.

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